March is Women’s History Month! We're celebrating some of our favorite champions, from Maine and away.

Florence Brooks Whitehouse 1869-1945

Florence Brooks Whitehouse, feminist, novelist, playwright, and activist for international peace, lived at 108 Vaughan Street in the West End in Portland during her most active years as a leader in the women’s suffrage movement in Maine. 

I am reluctant to admit that I had not heard of Florence Brooks Whitehouse until about a week ago. I sorted through a few boxes of newspaper clippings, letters, and documents in her file at the Maine Historical Society, ran over to her former house, and read as much as I could about her life from various internet sources (which unfortunately, is limited). Quickly, I realized that Florence Brooks Whitehouse was an unequalled force of her time – someone that the ACLU of Maine should, without question, honor for her contributions to important social causes of the early 20th century. 

Whitehouse was born and raised in Augusta, Maine, where she attended the Augusta public schools and St. Catharine’s Hall, an Episcopal finishing school for girls. Whitehouse became an accomplished painter, linguist, and musician, and pursued advanced studies in these fields. From 1892 until 1893, Whitehouse took an extended trip abroad, traveling through Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, Syria, and Egypt. She returned to make her home in Portland, Maine in 1894.

At age 44, Whitehouse joined the suffrage movement. She founded the Maine branch of the Congressional Union (which later became the National Women’s Party) and served as its chair from 1915 until suffrage was won in 1920. She was also the director of the Maine Woman’s Suffrage League, and toured the state to establish new suffrage leagues in Maine cities such as Lewiston, Rockland, Augusta, Waterville, and Bangor. Whitehouse herself picketed the White House and Congress, and travelled to Wyoming in 1916 where she tried to persuade men and women to vote against President Wilson on the grounds that “He Kept Us Out of Suffrage”. Wyoming came into the Union with women enfranchised. 

Whitehouse saw suffrage as a means of changing national priorities. In a newspaper article in her file at the Maine Historical Society (source and date unknown), she is quoted stating, “If women were represented in the United States Congress, $695 million would not be expended upon war, $750,000 on hogs, and $169,000 on child welfare.”

Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C

Whitehouse was a strong and influential leader, often earning the reputation of militant and radical. Whitehouse’s granddaughter said of her famous relative that she, “buttonholed congressmen, demonstrated on the streets of Portland, and hosted national leaders of the movement at her elegant, red brick home near the Western Promenade. She was thrown in jail after picketing the White House.” 

Together with her husband, Robert Treat Whitehouse, who was himself president of the Men’s Equal Suffrage League, she raised her three sons to support women's voting rights, too.

In a letter from her son, Robert Whitehouse Jr., to Mr. Frederick Hale, who represented the U.S. Senate from 1917 to 1941, Whitehouse Jr. urges Senator Hale to vote in favor of adopting the 19th Amendment:

Just a line to express my sincere wish that you will vote for the Federal Amendment of Women Suffrage in our old Uncle’s domains. It seems to me rather inconsistent to say the least that we should claim to be the greatest example of democracy and close our eyes to the far superior advance of Russia, Canada, and England along these lines … Please know that I have written this note without instigation from my mother, but it is my sincerest personal wish that you will do your best in helping our old Uncle to get into line.

March 26 [1919]

Images of letter: Florence Brooks Whitehouse collection, Maine Historical Society

Hale was amongst one of the 56 Senators to vote for the Amendment’s adoption on June 5, 1919.

[Anne Gass, Whitehouse's great grand-daughter, does not give Hale praise for this vote. She writes: "Senator Hale held out for over 18 months and did not vote for suffrage in the Senate. The reason he did was that prior to the 1917 statewide suffrage referendum he told Florence, as well as others, that he would be bound by the voting results. The referendum was defeated by a 2-1 margin, and thereafter he held to his word, despite herculean efforts by Florence and others to change his mind. In the end, he changed his vote after the decisive vote had been found- in other words, he waited for the other Senators to pass the Federal amendment. So his vote was superfluous when it might have been decisive. He gets no credit for that, in my book. The Hales were friends of the Whitehouses."]

The Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920. 

Florence Brooks Whitehouse saw the enactment of the 19th Amendment as a steppingstone toward equal rights. She continued to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), fair labor laws, and international peace and disarmament. Read more about Florence Brooks Whitehouse here

Read more about the ACLU's continued endorsement of the ERA here.